SEOUL, South Korea - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told a South Korean envoy yesterday that his country would return to six-nation negotiations over its nuclear weapons program as early as next month if it is treated with "respect" by the United States.
Kim was also said to have professed his ultimate intention to dismantle the nuclear program. "If the regime's security is guaranteed, there is no reason to possess a single nuclear weapon," the South Korean official, Chung Dong Young, quoted Kim as telling him during five hours of meetings in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
The meeting was the first time in more than three years that Kim has met with a South Korean official.
While Kim's comments were the most direct expression of North Korea's intent to return to the six-nation talks that have been stalled for almost a year, U.S. officials and others greeted them with caution. Lower-level North Korean officials have said repeatedly in recent weeks that the nation will return to the bargaining table, but they have declined to set a date.
In Kim's rare meetings with foreign dignitaries, the North Korean leader likes to appear statesmanlike with grand, conciliatory statements that are often not followed up with action.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that the "real issue" is not just getting North Korea back to the talks but also getting it to seriously discuss giving up its nuclear weapons.
"Until we have a date, we don't have a date," he said. "The real issue for us is getting back to the talks, but more than that, engaging seriously and substantively on our proposal and on discussions to end ... North Korea's nuclear program and address the threat that faces the Korean Peninsula."
Nearly a year has elapsed since the last round of six-nation talks in Beijing. The negotiations have been stalled by North Korea's refusal to attend, and the other five parties have disagreed over whether to use threats or incentives to try to get Pyongyang back to the table.
Some Bush administration officials have suggested that the United States regards the one-year anniversary as a deadline for reviving the talks and, should that fail, Washington might take up the matter at the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions or take other punitive action.
In yesterday's meetings, Kim repeated North Korea's assertion of recent months that the Bush administration was to blame for the near-collapse of the diplomatic process because of its hostile attitude.
"The United States treated us with contempt. If it respects us as a partner, we will return to the talks, as early as July," Chung Dong Young said he was told by the North Korean leader. But Kim also said more communication would be needed with the United States before multinational talks could resume.
In recent months, President Bush referred to Kim as a "tyrant" and "dangerous person." Pyongyang responded by calling Bush a "war maniac" and "Hitler Jr." But at the end of May, Bush referred to the North Korean leader as "Mr. Kim Jong Il," an apparent change in tone welcomed by the North Koreans.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.